Not today, anyway.
It was another grit-your-teeth slog of a game for Notre Dame football, a defensive struggle with all the charm of fresh-made prison gruel. It nearly took until the second quarter for either team to notch a first down, let alone score actual points. Boneheaded mistakes, baffling clock management choices, and questionable playcalling abounded on both sides. The refs had more than their usual quota of weird/bad calls, and both teams combined for fewer yards than Eric Barriere threw for in one game last year. But it was the best game of the season, because the Irish finally notched a win.
It feels like the offense turned a corner of sorts after halftime, but only time will tell. Certainly, the inability to ice the game in the fourth quarter does not bode well for long-term stability on the offense, but it was clear Notre Dame had progressed into game management, don’t-do-anything-stupid-to-blow-this mode by the time they could run out the clock. But there was a clear difference in the offense after the break. The offensive line was opening up holes. Passes were being completed. Tommy Rees stopped calling quite so many ineffective second-and-long runs. Yards were gained and points were scored. I don’t think this will ever be a good offense, but the second half showed it can do enough to win some games.
An interesting theory I heard over the weekend is that Brian Kelly knew that an offensive implosion of this caliber was likely, which encouraged him to jump ship. It’s certainly possible — it’s not like the state of our wide receiver room was a secret, and he certainly had a feel for what Buchner and Pyne were likely to be as quarterbacks. Kelly may well have taken the easy way out rather than try to cobble together an offense for the second year in a row, sticking Freeman with the rebuild he knew was coming. Not sure I fully buy it; it seems to play a little too heavily into the fanbase’s image of Kelly as a coward and a hack, and overlooks the simpler explanation that Freeman’s a defense guy and Tommy probably believed in Harry Hiestand a little too much. But I also fully believe that everyone in Notre Dame’s orbit should have known the offense would struggle, if not how much.
Meanwhile, the defense is getting increasingly worrisome. At this point the lack of turnovers generated is comical, the football goods literally taunting Notre Dame by calling not one, but two game-sealing ones back on the final drive. Remember when Tackling comes and goes, looking really solid at times and frighteningly shaky at others. And can please someone tell Al how to adjust to a quarterback scrambling for twenty yards before the sixth time he does it? I suppose, though, the point totals are good (holding Ohio State to 21 looks better each week) and this week the pash rush finally started to get home.* The defense will need to get better as well, since they’re going to have to carry the team in basically every game.
*I do feel the need to gently remind Isaiah Foskey that a sack is a perfectly acceptable, even good, outcome of a third down play, and that you do not need to strip an opposing quarterback just because some bloggers on the internet get mad about a lack of turnovers. Sack the guy, man. Get off the field.
At the end of the day, we’ve bought ourselves some time on the Freeman Era. You could see the palpable relief on the head coach’s face postgame, despite a solid six minutes of game time where the Irish could’ve salted away Cal’s chances and politely declined to do so several times. As I said last week, this was a must-win game, and the Irish delivered. It wasn’t pretty, but the mission was accomplished.
The silver lining of the Marshall game is that it pressed a hard rest on expectations for this year to where they probably should have been all along. This was not ever a playoff team, not with about one-and-a-half starting-level wideouts and a first-year quarterback and head coach. Without Tyler Buchner under center, this team clearly does not have a particularly high offensive ceiling (although, to be frank, I’m not sure it was all that high with Buchner), but what the Irish showed in the second half is at least functional. Notre Dame might play every game in the low twenties, but as long as they end up with a few more points than their opponents in more of them than they don’t, we can build off of that. It’s certainly going to be an adventure each and every week, but if the team keeps working, the staff keeps learning, and the breaks come in just enough quantities, this might end up not being a total disaster. Funny how quickly expectations go from greatness to “just don’t suck,” but that’s college football for ya.
I spent the second Saturday in a row forsaking the couch and the AC for the bleachers and the sun. I hadn’t planned to go to the Cal game, since I now have to pay actual money to get into the stadium (the ~horror~), but a generous friend offered me a ticket he wasn’t using on the cheap. What’s more it was a student ticket — and I just couldn’t pass up the chance to finally sit in the student section after five years at Notre Dame.
It was a mulligan in so many ways. I spent most of the day doing all of the things Notre Dame students usually do on football weekends, but it was my first time doing most of these things. Band activities kept my gamedays busy, an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, but it did mean some normal student gameday activities went by the wayside. So, Saturday was a glimpse down the path not taken. I went to a tailgate. I had some drinks. I floated between about three different friend groups, not really being able to give any my full attention (sorry guys…). I shouted profanity about Zahm Hall. I got to (finally) catch Marcus Freeman’s first win as head coach. I sang the alma mater arm in arm with Notre Dame students.
I also had the great fortune of sitting close to the band, a nice bit of spatial metaphor for being close to my old life but maintaining a healthy separation. If the Marshall game was about getting used to how to do game weekends away from the band, this was more about appreciating being away. I’ll always treasure my time in the Notre Dame Band, but even as I was finishing my career last year I could tell it was time to step away. Yesterday confirmed it. I found that I didn’t really miss marching on Saturday, and was able to slip into my new role as a band fan/cheerleader/groupie quite comfortably. Watching from the sidelines is its own treat, seeing the next generation take charge of the Greatest of All University Fight Songs (™) and the hike step. I’m so proud of each and every one of my old band colleagues for what they’ve been doing this year, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the rest of the season.
Fun fact about me — prior to my freshman year, I had never been to a Notre Dame win. I only had a three game sample size, but that’s enough to start to wonder if you’re a jinx. My first game post-graduation being a colossal disaster of a loss to Marshall didn’t help. So I finally get a notch in the win column, even if it took a bungled hail mary and two called back turnovers to pry it from the jinx’s cold dead hands. Maybe now I can go to games worry-free. (Just kidding. It’s impossible to watch Notre Dame football and not worry.)
I suppose it was only fitting that as I was reconnecting and reimagining the past, Notre Dame welcomed Manti Te’o back to campus for the first time in a decade.
Manti, deservedly, received a hero’s welcome. (If you haven’t watched the video of him presenting the national colors during pregame, grab a box of tissues). I think people who weren’t Notre Dame fans in 2012 (like most of my classmates, honestly) or who didn’t follow the story of that year closely forget just how much Te’o meant to that team and this program. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Manti Te’o saved Notre Dame football — from ignominy at the very least. Te’o took a gamble on himself and on Notre Dame by staying for his senior year when he could have left for the NFL and a massive paycheck, a decision that took both guts and heart, and one that vanishingly few college stars make. Without Te’o’s leadership, without him laying his body and his heart and his soul on the line for Notre Dame, there’s no undefeated season, no national title game, no renewed belief that Notre Dame could compete in the modern era of college football. Kelly’s probably gone after 2016 without just enough residual good will as a life raft. There’s no five straight ten win seasons, no playoff appearances. It’s possible Ian Book never takes a snap for Notre Dame, let alone becomes the winningest quarterback to ever wear a gold helmet. At the risk of placing too much emphasis on one individual from a gutsy, resilient team, Te’o’s choice to play his senior season season set Notre Dame on a path to all the success of the Kelly era — which is why what happened to him is all the more tragic.
The end of the 2012 season will forever have a pall cast over it, not because of the “getting blown out by Alabama” (because, spoiler alert, a lot of teams get blown out by Alabama), but because of a seemingly endless tidal wave of off-the-field drama dragging down whatever momentum the team had built up by reeling off twelve straight wins. There was Brian Kelly’s flirtation with the Philadelphia Eagles (which, in retrospect, is so quaint it hurts), Everett Golson’s cheating scandal, and of course the revelation that Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend had never really existed.
I have not seen the Netflix documentary on Te’o’s catfishing yet — part of the reason is that I’m saving it for a special project later this fall, and part of it is that I’m not sure I’ve recovered enough from the aftermath of that season ten years ago to revisit it just yet. And if I’m feeling that way, I can’t imagine what Manti’s been through the last decade. I can count on one hand the number of football players that even belong in the same sentence as Te’o as far as contributions to Notre Dame football in my lifetime, and yet he became the butt of the easiest, lamest joke in football. He was visibly never the same player after the revelations came out, and his NFL career never took off in a way commensurate with his talent. One has to wonder if things would’ve played out the same way if he had declared for the draft as a junior. How different would things be for Te’o? A red (green?) carpet and thunderous applause is the absolute least the university can do. But really, it was just good to see Manti in Notre Dame Stadium again. I’m beyond overjoyed that he feels comfortable enough in himself to come home again.
Though, seriously, dude, cool it on the Freeman-Diaco comparisons. Marshall was just last week, we’re not ready.
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